A civil jury ruled Nov. 22 that rancher and vigilante Roger Barnett must pay $98,000 in damages to a Mexican-American family that he illegally held and threatened at gunpoint. The family were legal residents hunting on lands near his ranch, but Barnett apparently assumed they were “illegals” coming across the border (Douglas Dispatch, Nov. 24)
The decision occassioned this unflattering portrayal on the front page of the New York Times Nov. 24, “A Border Watcher Finds Himself Under Scrutiny”:
For years, Roger Barnett has holstered a pistol to his hip, tucked an assault rifle in his truck and set out over the scrub brush on his thousands of acres of ranchland near the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona to hunt.
Hunt illegal immigrants, that is, often chronicled in the news.
“They’re flooding across, invading the place,” Mr. Barnett told the ABC program “Nightline” this spring. “They’re going to bring their families, their wives, and they’re going to bring their kids. We don’t need them.”
But now, after boasting of having captured 12,000 illegal crossers on land he owns or leases from the state and emerging as one of the earliest and most prominent of the self-appointed border watchers, Mr. Barnett finds himself the prey.
Immigrant rights groups have filed lawsuits, accusing him of harassing and unlawfully imprisoning people he has confronted on his ranch near Douglas. One suit pending in federal court accuses him, his wife and his brother of pointing guns at 16 illegal immigrants they intercepted, threatening them with dogs and kicking one woman in the group.
Another suit, accusing Mr. Barnett of threatening two Mexican-American hunters and three young children with an assault rifle and insulting them with racial epithets, ended Wednesday night in Bisbee with a jury awarding the hunters $98,750 in damages.
The court actions are the latest example of attempts by immigrant rights groups to curb armed border-monitoring groups by going after their money, if not their guns. They have won civil judgments in Texas, and this year two illegal Salvadoran immigrants who had been held against their will took possession of a 70-acre ranch in southern Arizona after winning a case last year.
The Salvadorans had accused the property owner, Casey Nethercott, a former leader of the Ranch Rescue group, of menacing them with a gun in 2003. Mr. Nethercott was convicted of illegal gun possession; the Salvadorans plan to sell the property, their lawyer has said.
But Mr. Barnett, known for dressing in military garb and caps with insignia resembling the United States Border Patrol’s, represents a special prize to the immigrant rights groups. He is ubiquitous on Web sites, mailings and brochures put out by groups monitoring the Mexican border and, with family members, was an inspiration for efforts like the Minutemen civilian border patrols.
“The Barnetts, probably more than any people in this country, are responsible for the vigilante movement as it now exists,” said Mark Potok, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the groups. “They were the recipients of so much press coverage and they kept boasting, and it was out of those boasts that the modern vigilante movement sprang up.”
Jesus Romo Vejar, the lawyer for the hunting party, said their court victory Wednesday would serve notice that mistreating immigrants would not pass unpunished. Although the hunters were not in the United States illegally, they contended that Mr. Barnett’s treatment of them reflected his attitude and practices toward Latinos crossing his land, no matter what their legal status.
“We have really, truly breached their defense,” Mr. Vejar said, “and this opens up the Barnetts to other attorneys to come in and sue him whenever he does some wrong with people.”